It’s been nearly 14 years since audiences were first treated to Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. At the time, Roger Ebert said that Depp’s “performance is original in its every atom. There has never been a pirate, or for that matter a human being, like this in any other movie.” Four films later, and this much is still true. Depp’s performance as Sparrow is unique in the catalog of all things movie and he still brings some of what made this character so unique and essential to the franchise to the table, err, deck.
Fourteen years is plenty of time for an entirely new audience to have been born, and to those uninitiated to the Pirates franchise, they may find Depp’s performance, the corresponding over-the-top action sequences, and now iconic scoring to be nearly as enjoyable as audiences did in 2003. At the same time, 14 years is plenty of time for actors to age in the human scale; Depp was 39 then, approaching 54 now, and let me tell you, as a 36-year-old, I imagine this means noticeable differences, especially when one is attempting to portray the same character. Similarly, the masterful Geoffrey Rush is now nearly 66, then a sprightly 51. Both men still bring their characters to life, and at times, it feels as they’re mustering the same bravado they did circa 2003, yet at others, it feels flatter, more fatigued.
Maybe it is the ravages of time, or franchise fatigue, as many will likely be hard pressed to bring just as much to film five as they did the first. For fans of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, or even the original trilogy (all wrapped and released by 2007), you may find something lacking. The ship still floats, riding high on pretty visuals and robust quips and wit, but she’s not quite as pretty, nor as sharp, as the day her captain smashed a bottle of rum on her bow to set her adrift.
Both Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightly) have been absent from the franchise since At World’s End, so it may come as a surprise that the first character we meet, a young boy and expert on the sea’s supernatural lore, actually turns out to be their progeny. The opening scene quickly puts him in touch with Orlando Bloom, but my gut worried, watching it play out, that Orlando wasn’t really back for the film, more as a cameo—a nod to the Pirates glory days, and I didn’t expect to see him again until the film’s conclusion. Sadly, this proved true. But this sequence informs us of the driving narrative need of the film: Will Turner’s son, Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) wants to break his father’s curse that binds him to the Flying Dutchman, the ship that Will inherited from Davey Jones, and prevents Will from returning to his family.
Let’s be clear about this, while Depp and Rush, in faithful turns as Captains Sparrow and Barbosa, carry the film, their narrative needs do not. This story is not theirs; it’s a story driven by a new, younger generation, Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario (Carina Smyth), and their mutual quest to find the Trident of Poseidon, the only object powerful enough to break all the sea’s curses. This is a problem, to a degree structurally, as Depp and Rush are there to support Thwaites and Scodelario, but the opposite plays out onscreen. Depp and Rush remain instrumental to not only the story, but the heart of the film. Their characters are fully developed, have history and depth, lending weight to what happens. While our new characters are not as emotionally resonant, despite admirable attempts to add depth in the brief time allotted by the script. Scodelario shines as a smart woman immersed in heavy colonial ignorance, whose education, drive, and intelligence are quickly branded and trumped by labels of “witch” at every turn to effective fanfare and laughs.
But this imbalance in story and reality carries further. Sparrow particularly, goes through the motions without clear motivation. He’s drinking, wenching, and getting in and out of trouble with the same brilliance-come-ineptitude he always does, but here he has no drive and seems simply along for the ride. One can only assume because a Pirates movie without Depp / Jack Sparrow would not be a Pirates movie—a fact producers must have admitted, despite Depp’s box office woes, massive losses for another Disney vehicle (The Lone Ranger), and owing to his massive pay day for this turn.
Javier Bardem plays the villain, Captain Salazar, to appropriate levels of villainy, but in this, he and his crew are weak, third iterations of undead pirate miscreants. They seem very much par for the course, and are feared, inexplicably, by men who have faced the same and worse in Pirates films past. What adds a fresh ocean breeze are the infusion of undead gulls and, particularly, sharks—a nice expansion of the undead monkey theme (little Jack does make his own appearance, to useful purpose as well). Similarly, it’s the undead pirates’ walking and running across the water’s surface (very much biblical in allusion) adding a nice correlation to the pirates from the original when they “take a walk” underwater. In many ways, what works best here is what has always worked for the franchise (including Hans Zimmer’s wonderful orchestral and epic score).
The same can be said for the film’s over the top action sequences and elaborate stunts. Almost zany in nature, the stunts are as true to the franchise as ever. And, as usual, they are made to work through humor and well placed gags and jokes. The film is funny, I found myself laughing often, partly just in plain appreciation for the continuation of what made earlier Pirates films successful—and here Dead Men Tell no Tales may even succeed more than some of the other sequels. It is quite funny. The audience I viewed it with were laughing more than many audiences at pure comedies. It was hearty, and again, appreciative. Carina’s misfortune at having studied astronomy and horology (the study of time) are used wonderfully for extended bits.
There’s probably room for a more meritorious review to dive deep into the depths of how female protagonists in these films are sexualized, reduced to heaving bosoms (albeit heaving bosoms that continually outmaneuver and perform their male counterparts), and stereotypes quite aware of their misfortune of living in the age they do. And there’s probably something to say regarding how these heroines are denied true independence as men continually feel the need to sacrifice themselves on their behalf, denying them their own narrative decision making power. But we’ll only hint that this imagined meritorious review can do this, and better—for we are not said review.
Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg purportedly tried to emulate Gore Verbinski’s directing of the first three films, and you do feel it here, but the heart they tried to infuse is meek and only succeeds by forced inclusions of plot developments that seem tacked on and don’t serve the majority of the movie. Here, see twists on why exactly this new female protagonist, Scodelario, has been introduced. Or what exactly happens when Will Turner’s curse is lifted, as you must come to expect will come to pass.
What succeeds is what has always succeeded, and here, in film five, with apparent plans for more, pending the financial success or failure of the latest (by no means guaranteed given a $230M production budget), I imagine this franchise isn’t going anywhere. To me, seeing new characters come and go to flesh these vessels out while the underlying bones remain the same is reminiscent of the James Bond franchise; perhaps one day we will get another actor to play Jack Sparrow (though they successfully prove they can CGI him younger here), as unimaginable as that seems, and the franchise will reinvent itself by progression. Let’s just hope Johnny Depp and Disney learn from Sean Connery’s mistakes—once you’re out, you’re out: don’t come back.